the 221st General Assembly

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PCUSA GA221 BDS action applauded by David Duke


Wow.  Just wow.

We’ve heard from so many commissioners at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 221st General Assembly (and their apologists) about how their actions were not related to the global BDS movement.  (I’m convinced the assertion is insupportable – as I detail here.)  We’ve also heard how these actions came from a place of love.

The sad part is, many (though by no means all) of the ones saying this actually somehow make themselves believe it is true.

I suggest they read this.  It is an announcement on DavidDuke.com

It is titled “Victory! Presbyterian Votes Israeli Divestment!”

And it contains a couple of very interesting assertions:

[W]e heard from friends at the Presbyterian Church national meeting who told us that they were victorious … the Church voted to divest from companies doing business in the brutally occupied West Bank.

And

“The [sic] tried to threaten the voters by saying that “David Duke” supports this policy and that the Church will get a bad name by supporting something that Dr.Duke has been tied to in the media,” Said Melissa Anderson who was there with close friends who voted on the divestment. “But, people are just not listening to the Jewish racist threats anymore, they are starting to stand up for real justice.”

And it conveys a statement from Dr. Duke congratulating the Presbyterian Church “for standing up to Jewish racism and supremacism!”

 

You must be so proud.

Yep … No doubt, it was entirely unforeseen that people would interpret your acts as anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.  No doubt, you couldn’t be more surprised and distressed because you’re so full of love.

Presbyterian BDS: What you want is irrelevant, what you have chosen is at hand


When the gavel fell, the 221st General Assembly officially concluded, the commissioners began to make their ways home, and the Committee On Local Arrangements was left to clean up the details, the official PC(USA) was firmly aligned with the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. This is not really arguable in any credible way.

Now I realize this assessment will be met with protests of commissioners, of many institutional Presbyterians, and quite a few local Presbyterians. I also realize many of those protests will be offered with sincerity, honesty, and confidence. But they will be mistaken.

The language of Item 04-04 – the divestment measure, reflects the desire of commissioners to avoid association with the global BDS movement.

For example, it begins with this:

“The PC(USA) has a long standing commitment to peace in Israel and Palestine. We recognize the complexity of the issues, the decades-long struggle, the pain suffered and inflicted by policies and practices of both the Israeli government and Palestinian entities. We further acknowledge and confess our own complicity in both the historic and current suffering of Israeli and Palestinian yearning for justice and reconciliation…” [sic]

For some inscrutable reason, the text falls off into tortured grammar here. And while it might be possible to discern commissioner intent, it is really rather nonsensical. Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that the ‘prologue’ is designed to indicate that Presbyterians are really swell people who really get the complexity of the issue and mean nothing but good for everybody concerned.

Next, commissioners generously reaffirm Israel’s right to exist … not so much as a Jewish state, but something.

Then they declare their commitment to a two-state solution.

But the real clincher … the proof that their BDS is nothing at all like global BDS lies in the same paragraph as their divestment instruction:

“This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”

So there you have it … Nothing to see here, folks … This is not BDS … We’re doing this out of love ….

Some of their words might sound good. Some of them might sound kind. Some of them might sound vaguely Christian – and I have no doubt they want their “stand” to be genuinely good.

There’s only one tiny, little problem: their actions.

What General Assembly Commissioners, what Presbyterian officials, what naïve supporters want is irrelevant. What they have chosen is at hand.

Let’s look at that.

1. First there is divestment itself. Contrary to popular myth, the companies selected for this special treatment (Caterpillar, Motorola, Hewlett Packard) were not chosen at random. They were already targets of a then embryonic BDS movement. Anyone who has paid any attention at all to the BDS movement knows their campaigns specifically targeting these companies. If there was some other method, some other rubric the MRTI applied to evaluate the then current and potential holdings of the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation, it has not been revealed. How then did they zero in on these particular companies? Ecumenical partners? Well some of these are the very BDS activists who issued the Amman Call [The PC(USA) commended this call for BDS in 2008.] and the Kairos Palestine document [the PC(USA) endorsed elements of this in 2010].

Committee 4 (essentially a sub-committee of the GA) that evaluated the proposed divestment recommendation and endorsed it, was staffed with resource people who offered one perspective only. I mean here, specifically, an anti-Israel perspective. Interestingly Rifat Kassis spoke to both this committee and the General Assembly as a whole. Mr. Kassis is coordinator of Kairos Palestine; he has publicly endorsed a total boycott of Israel.

Anna Baltzer, national organizer for the BDS US Campaign to End the Occupation said this prior to the General Assembly:

…Inspired by our Presbyterian friends an [sic] allies, the US Campaign is mobilizing around the clock before and at the votes — everying [sic] from organizing outreach to decision makers to testifying in committee as an official resource expert.”

Pro-BDS former Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase spoke to the committee for half an hour. He was the moderator of GA 216 that first approved divestment in 2004.

More than one commissioners from Committee 4 expressed concern on the floor of the General Assembly plenary about the lack of balance in information available to the committee. From beginning to end, the divestment action has the fingerprints of the global BDS movement all over it.

2. Second, the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) took conflicting, inconsistent, and self-contradictory actions. And their actions were more telling than their words.

While voting to assure the world of their commitment to a two-state solution, this same General Assembly also voted to initiate a study on whether the PC(USA) should continue to support a two-state solution. It put this study in the hands of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy – a permanent committee of the General Assembly whose record of anti-Israel animus is well-documented. This GA also insisted that the ACSWP use horribly flawed and inaccurate materials and consult with the IPMN (an unspecified, but the only relevant mission network) and the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus. After Zionism Unsettled, the involvement of the IPMN in ANY study that concerns Israel should set off alarm bells even for the harshest Presbyterian critics of Israel.

This GA voted to assert that Zionism Unsettled – a resource endorsed by, among others, David Duke – did not reflect the views of the PC(USA), but it also voted to have the PC(USA) continue to distribute it.

This GA also voted to affirm “Occupation Free Investment in Palestine”. It commended the efforts of the pro-BDS Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s efforts to “excludes any investment in enterprises that benefit financially from the operations of the occupation, including the expansion of settlements.”

Yes, this GA rejected the proposal “On Distinguishing Between Biblical Terms for Israel and Those Applied to the Modern Political State of Israel in Christian Liturgy”; but it insisted on adding a cryptic comment:

[W]e take the matter of language, and specifically the tension around the use of the term “Israel,” very seriously. We hope the discussion and education about the use of language continues.

Though it may be self-evident to commissioners, it causes others to wonder exactly what they are saying here. What is the nature of the distinction they wish to make, and what exactly are they trying to educate people about? One likely interpretation of this is that it is an attempt to cut the Jewish people off from their biblical heritage. Given the comments of some Presbyterian activists on the subject, it would not be unreasonable to assume that hateful meaning.

3. Third, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not just divesting. It is already on the record as boycotting “all Israeli products coming from the occupied Palestinian Territories, including AHAVA Dead Sea Laboratories Beauty Products and all date products of Hadiklaim, The Israel Date Growers Co-Operative Ltd, often marked by the brand names: King Solomon Dates and Jordan River (not Israeli products from Israel.)” It has already “called on [its ecumenical partners] to join in the boycott.”

When the PC(USA) has called “upon all nations to prohibit the import of products made by enterprises in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land”, or when it has called upon conditioning US funding of Israel to various behaviors of Israel, it has been calling for sanctions.

The bottom line here is that any claim that divesting from companies chosen by BDS activists, boycotting products chosen by BDS activists, using BDS activists as resource persons in the committee which considered the divestment proposition – as if they were unbiased and credible sources of information, commending the Occupation Free Fund and other more stringent divestment vehicles, calling for sanctions … has every bit as much credibility as sentences that begin, “I’m not a racist, but ….”

Yes, I know this is not what the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) wants, but it is what it has chosen.

 

For General Assembly Home Gamers


Many of the controversial issues considered by this General Assembly have been considered by committees, but remain to be decided by the whole assembly.

Committee recommendations are, of course, not official actions of the PC(USA).  They are indicators of the mood of a General Assembly, and there is a higher likelihood that the plenary will take the action recommended by the committee.  Nonetheless, I’ve seen this go either way many times.

In the meantime, we wait.

If you – either Presbyterian members, or concerned non-Presbyterian stake-holders, are trying to follow this from home, you might find these links helpful:

1.  The PC(USA) General Assembly plenary meetings are live-streamed here

This, of course, would not have helped us follow committee deliberations as they were not streamed.  However, some of the reports from the committees will be presented today, and the more controversial votes will likely take place tomorrow.

If nothing else, watching this will give an insight into the odd process of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) politics.  The effect of blending religious worship, spiritualized language and church jargon with political wrangling is – and should be – rather jarring.  It doesn’t lend itself to clear thinking and good decision making.  It does, however, lend itself quite freely to the manipulation of commissioners without their complete awareness.

2.  The docket gives an indication of the times issues will be debated.

This is NOT a hard and fast thing because business items can always be reconsidered – or even sometimes rescheduled if discussions on other items go long.  But if you have an issue that concerns you closely this will give you an idea when to tune in.

The version of the docket I have linked to has Middle East issues being addressed Friday afternoon.  The item on distinguishing between “biblical Israel and the modern State of Israel” (that the committee recommended against) should come up tonight.

3.  PC-biz is a system that has been used for several General Assemblies now.

I find it easiest to follow the progress of specific items by looking under the “Committees” tab.  Here is where you will find the current status of business items – how committees handled and what action the whole GA has taken.

This is particularly useful if you want to know the exact wording of a measure, or if you want to see the supporting materials that accompany it.  The fact that many business items have been amending during the process makes this more complicated and more important to keep straight.

This was done by Committee 4, for instance in that the committee chose not to act on the MRTI divestment recommendation, but instead to amend an anti-divestment overture – keeping its more spiritual and ethical language, but adding divestment to it.  Someone simply following the overture could easily be confused because now, it takes the exact opposite action than that intended by its authoring presbytery.

 

On a Positive Note


Unlike its companion, Committee 4, Committee 7 – “Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations” – voted to reject an overture from the Presbytery of Chicago “On Distinguishing Between Biblical Terms for Israel and Those Applied to the Modern Political State of Israel in Christian Liturgy”.

Since the design of this overture was to sever the ties between ancient, biblical Israel and modern Israel – and by implication, between ancient Israel and the Jewish people – it was problematic at best.

In fact, whenever churches have emphasized this distinction historically, they threw open the floodgates to Christian antisemitism.

I’m not suggesting that the modern state of Israel is identical to biblical Israel, but to deny the relationship between the two is foolish and dishonest on the best of days.

In their action on this matter, Committee 7 chose to follow the “advice and counsel” of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and it chose to reject the contrary “advice and counsel” of the Advocacy Committee for Racial and Ethnic Concerns.

ACREC urged Presbyterians to go farther and insist that “This distinction should be made by worship leaders whenever ‘Israel’ is used in a worship setting, whether in hymns, prayers, confession, or sermon.]”

Fortunately, wisdom prevailed in committee 7.

Nonetheless, as with all the decisions taken today, nothing is final until after the whole assembly meets.

 

Aside

Thankful for Small Hypocrisies


Well, at least PC(USA) GA Committee 4 thinks Zionism Unsettled doesn’t represent the PC(USA).

While it was, of course, produced by an official mission network of the PC(USA), and while it was heartily endorsed by a former long-time stated Clerk of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, and while it is distributed by the PC(USA) … it really has nothing to do with Presbyterians.

Could it be that the lack of support of Committee 4 for Zionism Unsettled has less to do with the work’s objectively offensive content than it has to do with David Dukes fawning praise of it?

I’m sure I don’t know the motivations.  But it is at least a relief that Presbyterians can rest easier knowing there is no relationship between them and Zionism Unsettled.

 

Mazel Tov.

Balance, Bias, and other Four Letter Words


In defending his trademark diet from criticisms that it was unbalanced, Dr. Atkins argued that the proper corrective for an existing imbalance was imbalance.

He may have been right … or not, but the premise has some merit.

One of my chief concerns with Presbyterian activism and advocacy about Israelis and Palestinians – for as long as I have observed it – has been that it is one-sided; that it is not balanced.  A few months ago I watched a live stream of the Evangelicals for Social Action’s Impact Holy Land Conference.  One of the speakers asserted that, when talking about the Holy Land, balance should be a four letter word.

I was kind of taken aback by this claim.  I was familiar with it, of course, because the same assertion has been made in various PC(USA) contexts.  Usually this was a bromide offered as a rebuttal to charges of a lack of balance in PC(USA) materials on Palestinian and Israeli issues.  Most luminaries did not attempt to deny that there was an imbalance – because such a denial would rightly be met with laughter.  But the general thinking was that imbalance was justified.

So is it?  Should balance be a four letter word to Presbyterians? (more…)

The Same Old Song and Dance, my Friend


When it comes to Presbyterian Middle East policy decisions, not much changes.

Sure, faces and names change: since the 2004 divestment decision, the PC(USA) has a different stated clerk, a different moderator of the General Assembly, a different executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency – in fact, in 2004, the PMA was called the General Assembly Council (GAC) – then it was the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC), a different coordinator for the Advisory Council for Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), different members for these committees or boards.

Sure, specific emphases change to reflect both facts on the ground in the Middle East and advocacy trends and fashions.

But the central issues remain the same. Indeed the concerns, problems, emphases, and thrusts of PC(USA) policy – especially on Israel and Palestine – has not changed one bit in all the time I’ve observed it. No General Assembly has altered this. (Arguably, the 216th General Assembly in Birmingham in 2006 intended to do so; but if that was its intent – as I believe can be clearly demonstrated – it failed to give its actions enough force make a difference. Among other things, there were no consequences for committees, agencies, networks, employees of the PC(USA) failures to comply with GA instructions.)

The takeaway here: when it comes to PC(USA) Middle East policy decisions, we are in essentially the same place at the beginning of the 2004 General Assembly. Ten years of polity wrangling, of excessive spin, of cosmetic adjustments, of argument – in some rare cases, reasoned argument, have still left the same basic problems and questions unanswered in any meaningful or satisfactory way. (more…)

It’s That Time Again


In even numbered years in spring, I find myself getting sucked in to all the drama which is the PC(USA)’s General Assembly. This year, it is slated to take place in Detroit from June 14 through June 21.

To get an idea of both the ‘official’ tasks and scheduled activites, check out the docket and schedule. As in past years, specific business items can be found on the pc-biz site. PC-Biz is the best place to follow the items commissioners will consider.

In anticipation of a busy GA season, I am in the process of reorganizing this blog. The menu items that appear at the top of this page provide links to 2014 issues, to commentary on past general assemblies in 2012 and 2010, to a few older posts from between 2005 and 2009, to the Bearing Witness website (run by Jon Haber), and to my (new) other blog. (Surprisingly enough, it is a blog about other topics.) (more…)

The PC(USA) and Me


I have a love / hate relationship with the PC(USA).

For those who don’t know – perhaps those who see or hear an item in the news, a statement by various PC(USA) officials or groups – the “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a corporation,” is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States.  It is not a large denomination; it boasts fewer than two million members.  It is not a particularly wealthy organization; as odd as I find the concept, there are, in this world, individuals with more assets than the PC(USA).  Throughout the history of the PC(USA) and its predecessors, it has wielded a greater political and social influence than its numbers would suggest.  Even in the formation of the U.S. Government, Presbyterians played an active role.  Its historical traditions are Christian, Protestant, and Reformed (Calvinist), and it is named for its unique form of governance – by ruling and teaching elders working together.

There are things about the PC(USA) that I love.  Many Presbyterians I know are wonderful people – people I genuinely like and admire; but I suppose I could say the same thing for many denominations and religious groups.  I am very drawn to and share many traditional Presbyterian beliefs. It is not a one to one correspondence; there are issues where I part company with historic Presbyterianism – where I do not believe it best represents biblical Christianity.  Nonetheless, from my point of view the Westminster Confession is unequaled among documents of its type.  I have a great respect for the theory of Presbyterian polity – especially in its anti-elitist, non-hierarchical elements, and in the roles that laity, elders, and clergy played. (more…)

2 The Sad Truth


Over the course of my life, I have often been told “the sad truth”. The sad truth usually consisted in rehearsing my errors and sins. It was often told dishonestly – the speakers held motives of their own distinct from improving my character. It was often told hypocritically – the speakers had little room to talk. I usually responded with defensiveness and disbelief. In my mind, I quoted King Lear: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” And I suspect that is a common human reaction.

But it is a mistake. Whatever real or imagined motives the speakers carry, whatever hypocrisies they demonstrate, the accuracy of their charges remains unaffected. If the sad truth they are telling is indeed true, we ignore it to our peril.

There are few things we resist with such tenacity as that which we do not want to admit. (more…)

1. A Word


It is possible – even highly likely – that some Presbyterians desire a Middle East witness that is true, that is credible, that is ethical, that is fair. It is also highly likely that there are Christians in other denominations and people of other faiths who are concerned with the poisonous atmosphere created by bias and by the irresponsible use of antisemitic themes.

It is conceivable that quite a few people recognize the plight and the legitimate claims to justice of many Palestinian Christians and Muslims, but do not want to adopt the jingoism and hysterical one-sidedness that often accompanies over simplified solidarity campaigns. It is conceivable that quite a few people who recognize this will also recognize the fact that Israelis have legitimate claims to justice as well. (more…)

Where to Now St. Peter?


In Pittsburgh, the smoke clears, and the dust settles. The PC(USA) has emerged from its 220th General Assembly, having received its due flurry of media attention. Now the denomination, like a groundhog that’s seen its shadow, will recede from public notice and go about business of its own. A fair number of members and attenders of Presbyterian churches around the country remain unaware that anything even took place. At most, they will eventually receive a summary of the points someone, somewhere considers noteworthy. Observers are unlikely to get a clear picture of events.

What just happened? What does it mean really? What road is the PC(USA) on now? How do you even evaluate a General Assembly?

Is it like American Idol? “This assembly was in it to win it”. “What we really love about you is that you stay true to yourself.” “It was a bit pitchy for me.” “That was like really bad karaoke.” “It was appalling.” Will Americans have an opportunity to call in and vote? (more…)

Consolation Prizes


The overture to boycott all products produced by Jews in the West Bank passed.

Of course, the effects of this will be minimal – relatively few Presbyterians are aware of or participate in denominational boycotts.

 

A Story


[The following is a work of fiction. It is only an imaginary meeting.]

 

Somewhere in Pittsburgh, late into the night, Divestment Presbyterians are meeting, regrouping, making plans. The heat and humidity make them irritable. The news makes them irritable. Among them are some Presbyterian heavy hitters whose combined experience of navigating and influencing General Assemblies is staggering. They are filled with wrath and malice. They have come too far and worked too long to be rebuffed by a couple of nobody commissioners from the middle of East nowhere. Who do they think they are? How dare commissioners challenge their advice? How dare the Zionist rabbis try to tell Presbyterians what to do?

The room goes silent as a man enters the meeting late. He looks benign – almost soft – a kindly grandfather. They know better. They’ve seen how very clever he can be … and how very vindictive. And they defer to him like an elder statesman. He refuses to let anger dull their cunning. Only the calm and the calculating succeed. But they must get it out first – place the blame where it belongs. “You sure made a mess of things. It looks like it’s good thing I got here when I did.” (more…)

Please Just Wait and See


I know patience does not come naturally to people.  Nonetheless, it would be prudent to remember that the 220th General Assembly is not yet over

It is premature to report GA actions with any degree of certainty.

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